Soft Skull Press always presents a unique twist with its biographies or memoirs. It’s never just a straightforward history of the titular individual, but rather an analysis of the environment which produced the subject. In the case of W. Scott Poole‘s Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, the author uses the ’50s horror host as an entry point to discussing the era’s social mores and how the woman born Maila Nurmi challenged the status quo.
The author has a wealth of information on which to draw. Sadly, little of it is regarding Vampira herself. There’s minimal evidence of her television program, and what remains of her work is, essentially, bit parts in a few films. The thing for which she garnered her initial acclaim exists only anecdotally, leading to a great amount of speculation on Poole’s part.
This is additionally due in no small part to the fact that many of the stories about Nurmi’s childhood and upbringing come from the woman herself. As the author himself states, it’s much like trying to find out about Bob Dylan when he was just Robert Zimmerman, only there are no people to whom we can turn for contradiction or confirmation.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive story of Vampira’s life, this is likely as complete as it gets. Sadly, it’s a lengthy magazine article, at best. Poole does a lovely job in demonstrating how Nurmi and her character were something new and wonderful, but falls short of convincingly depicting the actress as a world-changing persona. I’ll grant Nurmi created some iconic imagery that still resonates, but as a danger because she “embodied both ancient terrors and the modern threats of the sexual revolution” stretches credulity a bit.
It’s nice to have the full story behind Nurmi’s relationships with the likes of Elvis Presley and James Dean, but there’s more information on those tabloid stories than on her work in Plan 9 From Outer Space, arguable the thing for which she’s most known these days — and most of that verbiage is given over to discussing much Tim Burton’s Ed Wood film got wrong, as opposed to details of the filming itself.
Nevertheless, Vampira is an entertaining read, and one that knbows how to engage its reader and provoke some thoughts. It’s not due out until September, but keep an eye out for it.